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Thoughts on Japan - Japanese Popular Culture Archive

Kingaku kara no omoi - 金額からの思い

Thoughts on Japan from the National Institute of Japanese Studies. University of Sheffield

March 13, 2009

You never know who's watching!

As I said in my last column, this week we’re leaving the Japanese language behind and taking a dip into Japanese popular culture, in the form of the jidai geki 時代劇, or ‘period drama’. Technically, this can refer to any programme, or film, set in Japan’s pre-Meiji past – from the sengoku 戦国 (‘warring states’) period (1467-1568) prior to the rise of the three great unifiers (Oda Nobunaga 織田信長 (1534-82), Toyotomi Hideyoshi 豊臣秀吉 (1537-1598), and Tokugawa Ieyasu 徳川家康 (1542-1616)) to the Bakumatsu 幕末 period after Perry’s arrival in 1853 – but it is most commonly used to identify dramas set during the long hegemony of the Tokugawa shogunate, when the power of the bakufu 幕府 was unquestioned, Japan was at peace and many of the cultural features which we now think of as being typically Japanese developed. This was, of course, the age of the samurai 侍, and hence jidai geki are often referred to as ‘samurai dramas’.

There are an extremely large number of these, ranging from the cinematic masterpieces of Kurosawa Akira 黒澤明, to any number of television series and specials of varying longevity and quality, as well as their anime cousins, too, of course. I’m not going to talk about the films today – these are already well covered in studies of Japanese and world cinema – but instead I’m going to consider a few of the many television series. Bear with me if this gets a bit boring – there is a point beyond an otaku-ish interest in a subgenre of TV show.

The most famous and long-running jidai geki is undoubtedly Mito Kōmon 水戸黄門, which has been running almost constantly on Japanese television in one format or another since 1954. In the Edo period, ‘Mito Kōmon’ was a general term used to refer to the daimyō 大名 of Mito domain, but in the programme, and almost universally now, it is used to refer to the second holder of that position, Tokugawa Mitsukuni 徳川光圀 (1628-1701). The plot of every Mito Kōmon episode is approximately the same: travelling Japan incognito accompanied by his two trusty retainers, Sasaki Sukesaburō 佐々木助三郎 and Atsumi Kakunoshin 渥美格之進 (‘Suke-san’ and ‘Kaku-san’, for short), and a number of other companions, including a ninja bodyguard, or two, Mito Kōmon enters a town, or village, where some good, honest, hard-working merchants or peasants are being mistreated, or oppressed, by some wealthier merchant, who has enlisted the aid of the local yakuza and is in league with a high ranking samurai official. Mito Kōmon and his followers, of course, cause enough inconvenience to the villainous merchant’s plans that he decides to call in the samurai ‘heavy guns’; there’s a climactic fight between the villains, Suke-san, Kaku-san and the ninja, at a certain point in which Mito Kōmon says, ‘Suke-san! Kaku-san! Mō ii!’ 「助さん、格さん、もういい」 (“Suke-san! Kaku-san! That’s enough!”), after which his two retainers start shouting, ‘Eei shizumare! Shizumare!’ 「ええい、静まれ、静まれ」 (“Cease! Cease!”). Everyone positions themselves so that the villains are facing Mito Kōmon and his retainers, after which Kaku-san produces an inrō 印籠 (a small lacquered container bearing a crest) from within his clothes, while Suke-san says, ‘Kono mondokoro ga me ni hairanu ka’ 「この紋所が目に入らぬか」 (“Have you not caught sight of this crest?”) – the crest is, of course, the triple hollyhock crest of the Tokugawa. Suke-san and Kaku-san then continue, ‘Konata ni owasuru kata o donata to kokoroeru. Osoreōkumo saki no fukushōgun mito mitsukuni kō ni araserareru zo! Gorōkō no gozen dearu. Zu ga takai. Hikaeorō!’ 「此方におわする方を何方と心得る。畏れ多くも先の副将軍水戸光圀公にあらせられるぞ。御老公の御前である。頭が高い。控え居ろう。」 (“Learn who is the personage who has appeared before you! It is the august former deputy Shōgun, Lord Mito Mitsukuni! An elderly lord is before you. His status is high – desist!”). Faced with the authority of the Tokugawa, everyone immediately falls to their knees, and Mito Kōmon distributes punishments and rewards and sets the situation to rights. At the end of the show, the heroes return to the road, travelling on to the next village and the next trouble spot in need of attention.

If you want to see this scene for yourself, here’s a YouTube clip showing a slightly abridged version of it – although the chief villain here is not a samurai, but a member of the kuge 公家 – the Kyoto court nobility (he’s the one with the painted eyebrows and black teeth) – hence his refusal to bow down as he owes no allegiance to the Tokugawa. The older noble who comes in and puts him in his place is the Minister of the Left (sadaijin 左大臣), one of the most senior officials in the imperial ‘government’ under the Emperor – although he had no authority outside of Kyoto, and precious little inside it, too.

There are a number of other dramas with remarkably similar plots: Abarenbō Shōgun 暴れん坊将軍 (‘The Roughneck Shōgun’), where the hero is the eighth shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshimune 徳川吉宗 (1684-1751), who roams Edo 江戸, disguised as ‘Tokuda Shinnosuke, the third son of a poor hatamoto’ (binbō hatamoto no sannanbō tokuda shinnosuke 貧乏旗本の三男坊徳田新之助), and puts matters to rights – although here when he reveals himself and ordains punishment, the villains reaction is to order their henchmen to attack him and Yoshimune is forced to resort to his strong sword-arm, al though he always uses the blunt edge so as not to kill the relatively innocent retainers attacking who are not aware of his identity:

Momotarō Zamurai 桃太郎侍, where the hero is the twin brother of a daimyō, who has foresworn his rank and lives as a rōnin 浪人 (a masterless samurai), in order to avoid causing dissension among the domain’s retainers, and puts matters to rights in his neighbourhood. He always makes an appearance at the climax in a Noh 能 mask of an oni 鬼 – a devil – and often says that he has come to ‘Oni taiji itasu’ 「鬼退治いたす」(“Beat down the demons!”):

And a number of different shows featuring the character of Tōyama Kinshirō 遠山金四郎, Edo’s South District Magistrate (minami machi bugyō 南町奉行), who roams his territory disguised as the playboy ‘Kin-san’, and reveals a shoulder tattoo of a cloud of cherry blossoms during a climactic fight with the villains every week, immediately before their arrest by the constabulary. At the subsequent court hearing, things look bleak for the good guys, when the villains deny all knowledge of their crimes, but all is saved when the magistrate reveals his tattoo, with a cry of, ‘Kono sakura fubuki ni mioboe ga nee to wa iwasenee ze’ 「この桜吹雪に見覚えがねぇとは言わせねぇぜ」 (“Don’t say you don’t remember this cherry blossom storm!”), or something similar , and also his familiarity with the situation.

All of these shows went through a number of series (Abarenbō Shogun lasted from 1978-2003, for example) and can be found running in repeats even now – on the dedicated jidai geki satellite channel, for example. When I was first in Japan at the end of the 1980s, it was possible to watch Mito Kōmon reruns every weekday, and new episodes of it and Abarenbō Shōgun once a week, and I couldn’t help wonder what it was that made them so popular, or so prevalent. Now, the television companies would, no doubt, say that perceiving the popularity of Mito Kōmon, they produced programmes with similar plots to cash in and sell more advertising, and a paranoid cynic might say that they were all part of a plot by the Japanese establishment to keep the population submissive, by providing the subliminal message that their rulers cared for them, were watching them secretly and would act to punish wrongdoing.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but I think you could make a case that their popularity in their late 1970s and early 1980s heyday was at least partly due to the fact that they superficially portrayed a simpler ‘pure Japanese’ time, when the social order was static and unchanging and people knew how to behave – quite unlike the chaotic modern age, when many of the structures of Japanese society were changing, and younger generations were challenging some of the assumptions of the older. In addition, with their simple kanzen chōaku 勧善懲悪 (‘rewarding good and punishing evil’) plots, they were undemanding entertainment for exhausted office-workers returning home after slaving all day at the corporate grindstone.

On the other hand, it’s a little known fact that Mito Kōmon as a folk hero was created for political purposes in the bakumatsu period: the last shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu 徳川慶喜 (1837-1913), was originally from Mito, and his father, Tokugawa Nariaki徳川斉昭 (1800-1860) encouraged the creation of the myth that Mitsukuni had been deputy-shōgun – a position that never existed in reality – as a way of cementing his son’s claim to the shogunal throne. These stories took on a life of their own in the Meiji period, with professional storytellers adding Suke-san and Kaku-san to the tale and laying out the basics of the plot as I have described it above. Mito Kōmon retained his popularity in Meiji, despite the general hostility to the Tokugawa, because it could be argued that he was, in reality, loyal to the Emperor (the historical Mitsukuni compiled a ‘Great History of Japan’ (Dai Nihon Shi 大日本史) which paid appropriate respect to the Emperors’ historical role). It’s an interesting example, I think, of how historical events and figures can be reinterpreted, and re-used, in later ages. For another example, one has only to think of last year's NHK taiga 大河 drama, Atsuhime 篤姫, which was the story of the life of the wife of the thirteenth shōgun, Tokugawa Iesada 徳川家定 (1824-1858), who was widowed at the age of 23, after slightly less than two years of marriage, and took Buddhist orders under the name of Tenshōin 天璋院, spending the remainder of her life working for the shogunate in the women's quarters (the ōoku 大奥) in Edo castle. The drama made her story one of feminist empowerment - a strong woman in a getting her political way in a male-dominated institution - and this being television, of course, the actress chosen to play her, Miyazaki Aoi 宮崎あおい, doesn't resemble the historical Atsuhime (1836-1883), in the slightest. Looking at the rather grim-faced woman in the photographs, one can't help but wonder how she felt about her life.

Next week: let’s talk letters!

June 06, 2009

Dorama - What A Drama!

Whenever I visit Japan these days, most of the time I’m working in various ways all day, so that when evening comes I usually find that all I want to do is go back to my hotel room and relax – rather than go out exploring bars, as I might have done twenty, or even ten, years ago. Once there, I could read, but usually I prefer to switch on the television and dip into the world of Japanese TV broadcasts. This is a good exercise, both linguistically, because one gets to hear naturally spoken Japanese language, and culturally, because you get to observe what interests and entertains the Japanese people – to see the kinds of things which much of the population enjoy, what moves them and, in the dramas, how the Japanese see themselves, or more accurately, like to imagine themselves to be.

Obviously, I’m not claiming that Japanese TV is necessarily a truthful reflection of Japan as it is – all dramas have to reflect the exigencies of their genre first and reality second – but there are enough common themes and character types running through many different programmes that it is clear they must supply something with which the Japanese can identify. The same is true for any nation’s television, of course – you’d pick up a pretty distorted view of what the UK is like if all you did was watch popular dramas, and soap operas (probably that the more bucolic, or picturesque, the location, the more likely there were to be murderers lurking about, and people living in close-knit communities in the inner cities always have disastrous times at Christmas), but you could get an impression of the iron grip the class system still holds on British (or English) social relations, attitudes and past-times, and what a long way there still is to go before Britain sees anything like the kind of uniformity in outlook there is in Japan, for example.

Turning back to Japan, as far as I can tell, there are essentially two basic plots used for the majority of dramatic productions: first, and perhaps most common, is the story of what one might call the deru kui 出る杭 – from the much quoted proverb deru kui wa utareru 出る杭は打たれる ‘the protruding stake will be hammered down’, meaning that anyone who doesn’t conform will be made to. In the deru kui dramas, however, the non-conformist, while causing frustrations to his/her group (and there’s always a group), almost always, ends up teaching the group a lesson about something, while possibly becoming a bit more conformist. Classic examples of this type of drama would be: Asahi TV’s Satorare サトラレ (‘Transparent’) (2002) featuring Odagiri Jō as a genius who telepathically projects his thoughts to anyone in a 12 metre radius around him, which naturally causes endless opportunities for comedy, embarrassment and pathos, as everyone is forbidden by law from reacting to them, or telling him that he’s doing it; Fuji TV’s long-running Naasu no Oshigoto ナースのお仕事 (‘A Nurse’s Job’) (1996-2002), starring Mizuki Arisa 観月ありさ as an accident-prone and headstrong nurse, who nevertheless cared passionately for her patients; Asahi TV’s Fugō Keiji 富豪刑事 (‘Millionaire Cop’) (2005-2006), starring Fukuda Kyōko 深田恭子 as the daughter of a fantastically wealthy whose father essentially buys her a place in the police force, and who then uses her wealth to help solve crimes; and last year’s Shibatora – dōgan keiji Shibata Taketora シバトラ~童顔刑事・柴田竹虎 (‘Shibatora: Baby-Faced Cop Shibata Taketora’), starring current heartthrob Koike Teppei 小池 徹平as a police officer who is so youthful looking that he can pass for a schoolboy – something, along with his psychic ability to see when Death is reaching out for someone, which gives him a special insight into delinquency and youth crime.

The second basic plot is ‘the group overcoming its conflicts to win through in the end’ – something which is certainly not a purely Japanese plot. An obvious example of this would be Fuji TV’s 2003 series Water Boys about a high school synchronised swimming team. You also, of course, get combinations of the two plots – most often in police, or crime, dramas. The detective in a Japanese murder mystery is often something of a loner – an offbeat detective, a lawyer, or a prosecutor – but who, nevertheless, is firmly part of a group – of police, or other legal professionals – with whom he, or she, has disagreements, but which are resolved in order to catch the killer, or killers. Just check out the huge list of characters such as Mōjin Tantei Matsunaga Reitarō 盲人探偵・松永礼太郎 (‘Blind PI Matsunaga Reitarō’), Onna Kenji Kasumi Yūko 女検事・霞夕子 (‘Lady Prosecutor Kasumi Yūko’) and Bengoshi Asahi Takenosuke 弁護士・朝日岳之助 (‘Lawyer Asahi Takenosuke’) on the Japanese wikipedia page for the extremely long-running Nihon TV show, Kayō Sasupensu Gekijō 火曜サスペンス劇場 (‘Tuesday Suspense Theatre’) (1981-2005) to see what I mean. Another example would be the Odoru Daisōsasen 踊る大捜査線 (‘Bayside Shakedown’) franchise, which from its beginnings as a TV show in 1997, has spawned a large number of specials and spin-offs, including four films. The initial series and films starred Oda Yūji 織田裕二as a salaryman who gives up his office job to become a police officer, and gets assigned to the Tokyo Bayside Police Station, where he has to fight against the inertia of his superiors to get the job done (the original series was remarkable for suggesting that the many police officers treated the job just like working at a company, and weren’t passionate crime fighters). A more recent example would be Hotaru no Hikari ホタルノヒカリ (‘It’s Only Little Light in my Life’ – this is the ‘official’ English title, but a more natural one might be simply ‘Hotaru’s Light’), starring Ayase Haruka 綾瀬はるか as a young woman working for an interior design company – where her department has to compete for contracts and work together to complete jobs (the group working together), but who is secretly a himono onna 干物女, a ‘dried fish woman’ (this isn’t a standard expression, but rather something invented by the writer), who prefers slobbing around at home rather than keeping herself presentable and going out on dates (the non-conformist element).

Within both of these plot-types, you also get a number of clearly defined characters: the essentially incompetent superior who’s more interested in golf than the job, but who may, nevertheless, come through in a crisis; the colleague who’s only got the job through family connections; the slimy colleague who’s jealous of the protagonist and wants to get rid of him, or her; the loyal sidekick – often female if the protagonist is male, and vice versa – who clearly has a yen for the protagonist, but will never get anywhere because the protagonist is too wrapped up in the job; the wise old colleague who provides the voice of experience; the young female colleague who provides comic relief; the loyal friend, and so on. It shouldn’t take you too long to identify which archetype any character in a given drama belongs to, if you watch it for a while.

So, what does all this tell us about Japan and the Japanese? Well, primarily I think it’s a very good demonstration of the importance of group relations: individuals are only seen in the context of how they fit into, or influence, their group, and, on the whole, it’s the success or failure of the group that’s important. In addition, the overwhelming focus on the world of work, or school, hints both at the importance these places play in people’s lives, and perhaps, self-image. You do get workplace-set dramas in the UK, of course: medical, police – I can even recall a couple set in hotels – but it’s frequently the characters’ relations with each other which are more important than what they do. I can’t imagine a character making an extended speech about how hard they intend, or want, to work to make their, say, department store, the best in the country, but this happens regularly on Japanese TV. Of course, you could say that this is just the Japanese business elite manipulating the masses, but I’m not quite that cynical yet.

Next week, I’ll take a slightly more academic look at Japanese TV, and discuss how other scholars have analysed it recently.

June 12, 2009

What can we learn from dorama?

Last week I was talking about the wonderful subject of Japanese television dramas in terms of the general types of plots and characters which tend to appear, and what broader lessons about Japanese society we can draw from watching them, quite apart from the linguistic and entertainment benefits that can be obtained. This week, I said I’d take a look at the types of academic studies which scholars have done recently. I’m not going to pretend that this is anything like a comprehensive study or review of the literature – I don’t have time, or space, for that – but I can identify some of the broader areas which have attracted attention and flag up some of the more interesting studies for you to look at if you want to go into the subject in more depth.

Television drama can, of course, be a research topic for any number of academic disciplines, some of which can pay less attention to the dramatic aspects of the medium than others. For example, Senko Maynard, who I’ve mentioned before when talking about Japanese rhetorical structures, has recently been analysing the language used in a particular dorama in order to determine how language use between individuals changes as their relationships mature and alter, and discovering that ‘linguistic strategy such as stylistic shift expresses changing emotions between the characters, and, in particular, that stylistic shift indexes changing degrees of intimacy.’ (Maynard 2001: 1). This is straight linguistics research, which just happens to be using a drama as a resource – she could equally have gone out and recorded examples of speech and analysed those, although as the dorama in question, Majo no Jōken 魔女の条件 (TBS, 1999), concerned the progression of an illicit affair, it might have been difficult to obtain real-life examples easily.

It’s also possible to draw more firmly grounded academic conclusions about the current state of Japanese society from looking at what appears, or doesn’t appear, on television. Two recent studies, Valentine (1997) and Stibbe (2004) have analysed TV programmes in order to determine what they can tell us about the representation of minorities in Japan. Valentine’s work on marginalised sexualities shows that ‘lesbians and gay men can be freely stereotyped’ (Valentine 1997: 59), with lesbians in particular being portrayed, when they are represented at all, in almost wholly negative terms. For example, in the drama Kōkō Kyōshi 高校教師 (TBS, 1993), a lesbian character, even though not explicitly acknowledged as such, ‘is associated with…non-reciprocated, enforced relationships involving abuse of power’ (Valentine 1997: 60), while gay men generally, when not portrayed comically as okama オカマ, are ‘stereotypically defective in love, decency, honesty or courage: they are lonesome and/or loathsome’ (Valentine 1997: 69). Stibbe (2004), on the other hand, investigated representations of the disabled on Japanese television, discovering that from the beginning of the 1990s, there was ‘a massive boom in the portrayal of fictional disabled characters, played by non-disabled actors’ (Stibbe 2004: 23), with the characters being both positive, attractive and involved in romantic relationships (Stibbe 2004: 23). These dramas worked, however, to reinforce accepted social norms in that they either almost invariably concluded with the death of one of the protagonists, suggesting that the barrier between able-bodied and disabled people is ‘a taken-for-granted fact of Japanese society, without so much as a hint that it might be overcome’ (Stibbe 2004: 26), or else suggested that disabled people could be cured, or needed the protection of someone able-bodied (Stibbe 2004: 27), thus marginalising them and denying them an identity of their own.

The final major area of research on Japanese television is the consideration of its relationship with East Asia – either in terms of how it may contribute to the formation of a common East Asian popular culture and identity (Chua 2004), or how it spreads beyond the shores of Japan to Hong Kong and China (Nakano 2004) (other scholars have also considered the penetration of Japanese popular culture into Korea). In the former, it is not simply Japanese television which becomes the object of study, but other countries’ products of popular culture, too – I’m sure you are all familiar with the vogue for all things Korean recently in Japan, the so-called Kanryū būmu 韓流ブーム - and how they cross cultural boundaries and are received in environments other than that in which they were created.

There might be a tendency to view the international spread of the artefacts of Japanese popular culture – television programmes, films, comics, music, and so forth – as the result of cultural and economic imperialism. That is, Japanese corporations aggressively pushing their products into other East Asian markets, and overwhelming the domestic products. According to Nakano (2004), however, this is not the case: the spread of Japanese entertainment into Hong Kong and China was consumer driven, with young people watching pirated copies of Japanese dramas, and demanding more themselves. This is important because ‘this shift in perspective might help us break with the concepts of Japanization as well as Americanization that put the economic power at the absolute center of globalization’ (Nakano 2004: 249), and allow us to develop a more people-centred view of East Asian relations.

So, in answer to the question posed in the title of this column – I’d have to say, we can learn a great deal from dorama, both about Japan, and the part of the world in which it is.


Chua, Beng Huat (2004) ‘Conceptualizing an East Asian popular culture’ Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 5 (2): 200 – 221.
Maynard, Senko K. (2001) ‘Falling in love with style: Expressive functions of stylistic shifts in a Japanese television drama series’ Functions of Language 8 (1): 1-39.
Nakano, Yoshiko (2002) ‘Who initiates a global flow? Japanese popular culture in Asia’ Visual Communication 1: 230-254.
Stibbe, Arran (2004) ‘Disability, gender and power in Japanese television drama’ Japan Forum 16 (1): 21-36.
Valentine, James (1997) ‘Skirting and Suiting Stereotypes: Representations of Marginalized Sexualities in Japan’ Theory Culture Society 14: 57-85.

January 23, 2010

Bloodsuckers of the World, Unite! Part One

I thought I’d give the classical literature a rest this week and spend my next few columns talking about vampires – for reasons which will become clear shortly. The figure of the blood, or life, draining monster is a familiar one from tales of the supernatural the world over, with the nosferatu in Europe, the al-ghūl in Arabia, and the jiāngshī 殭屍 in China. Each of these has its own characteristics, and each has been adopted to a greater or lesser extent by a variety of media for fictional representation, which has often produced a mythology about the creatures which has more reality in popular imagination than the old folk-wisdom now does.

Without doubt, the most well-known of these is, of course, the vampire, which has enjoyed waves of popularity ever since Bram Stoker adapted tales of the nosferatu for Dracula in 1897. As I’m sure you know, there have been a series of cinematic tales about the Count, or his family (or even his dog – does Zoltan, Hound of Dracula sound familiar to anyone?), starting with Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu, continuing in the 1930s with Universal Studios’ Dracula films, Hammer Horror’s versions with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and culminating in Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which converted Stoker’s cold-hearted monster into a passionate, and thwarted, lover. Simultaneously there have been any number of other films about vampires, ranging from straight horror to farcical comedy.

The vampire has also been influential on the small screen, too, with Joss Whedon’s Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) being the most famous example, and the first to use battling the supernatural as a metaphor for the journey from child to adult. More recently, Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries have been adapted for television as True Blood, which is aimed at a much more adult audience, and uses the plot theme of vampires going ‘public’ to explore concepts of racism and discrimination – as well as the steamy eroticism and barely concealed violence often stereotypically associated with the Deep South of the US. At the same time, there’s been a boom in vampire-related fiction, aimed at a whole gamut of age-ranges and readerships: there are literary descendants of Buffy such as Vampire Academy with teen angst converted to vampire angst, innumerable ‘paranormal romance’ titles, such as J. R. Ward’s tales of the Black Dagger Brotherhood about the difficulties of relationships with a vampire lover, and crossover works such as Laurell K. Hamilton’s long running Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series which began as relatively straight horror in a modern, twentieth century setting, and has morphed into romance and erotica, and back, as it has continued. Currently, of course, the single most popular vampire-related tale worldwide is Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, which has legions of, mainly teenaged female, fans, pining over the relationship between its protagonists: ordinary high-school girl Bella Swann and Edward Cullen, her vampire true love – Japan is definitely no exception to this, with the translations of Meyer’s books selling well, and the first film and second films in the series generating large audiences.

As you may have guessed from the above, I’m something of a fan of fantasy and horror in all its incarnations, and am always on the lookout for a new series to try out, whether it be on television, or in book form, so I was pleased to find out when I was in Japan last summer that one of the most popular new television dramas was a vampire tale, and I settled in to watch it with interest, wondering what the Japanese take on the story would be. The show was called Koishite Akuma Vampaia Bōi 恋して悪魔ヴァンパイアボーイ, and featured one of the latest teen heartthrobs, fifteen year old Nakayama Yuma 中山優馬 as the eponymous protagonist. The title is a play-on-words, as it’s both ‘He Loves and is a Devil – the Vampire Boy’ or ‘Love me, Devil – Vampire Boy’ – either way, you can get a good sense of the plot from the title, and it soon became apparent that this was, indeed, a school-set vampire love story, and can only have been inspired by Twilight’s success, I think.

That being said, however, the programme closely followed the standard conventions for Japanese popular television drama, which made it a very different animal from Meyer’s works, and it was illuminating to watch for that reason – seeing how the plot arc was developed across the ten episodes of the story (Japanese dramas are almost always short and self-contained) provided me with a number of insights into what the Japanese expect and find entertaining in a television programme, which in turn can provide a degree of insight into the national character – if one can talk of such a thing.

Now that I’ve whetted your appetite, next week, I’ll take a look at plots of both Twilight and Koishite Akuma and see how they differ in approach and resolution.

January 29, 2010

Bloodsuckers of the World, Unite? Part Two

Last week I mentioned that the recent boom in vampire-related fiction and drama reached Japan last summer with the broadcast of a prime-time drama series, Koishite Akuma, although it was far more rooted in the conventions of Japanese dorama than in any of the recent western productions. To illustrate this, let’s take a look at the plots of Koishite Akuma and its closest equivalent, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight.

In Twilight, lonely teenager Bella Swann moves to north-west of the US, and at her new school in a small town encounters Edward Cullen. She is struck by his attractiveness, and also by his aloofness – unlike most of her other new school-mates, he seems to want to have nothing to do with her. One thing leads to another, and Bella learns that Edward is, in fact, a vampire, but one who finds himself almost unbearably drawn to her, wanting to devour her and drink her blood. Despite this obstacle, the two fall passionately in love, and must overcome various dangers – disapproval from other vampires and werewolves – in order to remain together, which, in the end, of course, they do. In other words, the story is essentially Romeo and Juliet but with a happy ending.

In Koishite Akuma aloof teenage-seeming vampire Kuromiya Luka is brought to Yokohama to find his first victim, and is lodged while there with a small family consisting of a father, played by dorama stalwart Itō Shirō 伊藤四郎, his adult, widowed daughter, and her young son, all of whom have been mesmerised into believing that Luka is a distant relative. Enrolled at the local high-school, his mentor expects that Luka will swiftly bite one of his classmates, cement his immortality, and return to the vampires’ ‘beautiful, quiet, world’. Instead, Luka finds himself fascinated by his teacher, the beautiful and vivacious Natsukawa Makoto (played by Katō Rosa 加藤ロサ). Thus already difference between the two stories emerge: in Meyer’s work, despite the fact that Edward has been around since the 1900s, he appears to be a teenager, and so there are no obstacles – in human society at least – in him pursuing a relationship with Bella. In Koishite Akuma, Luka appears to be 16, while Makoto is 25, and their pupil-teacher relationship means that any romance between them will inevitably be scandalous, and bring them as individuals into conflict with the expectations of the group and society at large.

Eventually, in a somewhat unlikely plot twist, Luka finds that Makoto was, in fact, his high-school sweetheart before he died and became a vampire, and that she is his ‘fated woman’ (unmei no onna 運命の女) - the only one for whom his fangs will grow (much light relief is obtained by the fact that they tend to emerge involuntarily, and Luka has to frantically conceal their presence). If he does not bite her, he will die at the next full moon. Makoto, too, discovers his identity, and her unresolved feelings for him cause her to first become engaged to her current boyfriend, the school’s handsome vice-principal, and then to break it off. Scandal ensues and, in an attempt to force Luka to action, his vampire mentor, Katō, reveals Luka’s vampiric nature to both the people of his host family’s neighbourhood, and his schoolmates; he is forced to flee his family’s house when a mob attempts to storm it, although his adopted family remain firmly on his side. There follows a confrontation between Luka, Makoto and his class at the school, where he admits to his vampiric identity and original motivation for coming there, and apologises, and she confesses her love for him as her high school sweetheart. The class accept him and wish him well, and Luka and Makoto depart to watch the sunrise on his final day. He remains steadfast to the end in his refusal to bite her, and with a chaste kiss dissolves to dust. Over the closing credits, Makoto is shown having been accepted back into the bosom of her class, and it is suggested Luka and she continue to remain together in some ‘higher’ world.

You may have been able to work out from the above that Koishite Akuma formulaically follows the conventions of the standard deru kui plotline – of relations between an individual and a group – which I discussed in my earlier column on Japanese dorama. There are two groups of which Luka unwillingly finds himself a member: his class at school, and the family with whom he is forced to lodge. As the series progresses, he is drawn further and further into relations with both – through taking part in drama club activities; being an object of longing for most of the girls in class; through the warm, uncritical affection of his adoptive family, who also take Makoto to their hearts, and so forth. He thus gradually becomes aware of the ties of obligation that link him to the humans around him. At the same time, through the difficulties they have in adopting him, the groups change too, with the class learning some tolerance for an outsider, and the family drawn closer together by the presence of an elder brother/surrogate son in their midst.

Next week, I’ll consider what lessons may be drawn from the differences between the two programmes, and what they have to tell us about the media in Japan.

February 05, 2010

Bloodsuckers of the World, Unite? Part 3

Last week, I outlined the differences in plot and resolution between Koishite Akuma and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, as a way of demonstrating how closely the former fitted with Japanese tastes. This week, I want to consider some of the reasons why this was necessary, and see what lessons we can draw from it.

As a first step, I think it’s yet more evidence, if it be needed, of the omnivorous internationalisation of popular culture. The vampire theme is perceived as being currently popular, and so the Japanese media ‘cash in’ with a version tailored to their own audience. That being said, however, it’s also evidence of how much plot-lines have to be adapted to be acceptable to that audience, or the sponsors, producing a version which closely follows the stylised conventions of the dorama form.

There is no doubt that dorama are highly formulaic: no matter what the programme is, one can predict, within certain limits, exactly how it is going to develop. I’m not saying the British or American dramas are not formulaic – just think of 24, now in its eighth season and still following the same arc as in all its previous ones – but it’s more obvious in dorama, as if all the TV writers were following the same ‘Bible’: first, the two main characters and the supporting group ensemble is introduced; second, a variety of external circumstances both push the protagonists together and pull them apart, while simultaneously affecting the dynamics of their relationships with the group. Events build to a climax, which is resolved by a cathartic, emotional confrontation, which leads to the final denouement, whether it be happy, or sad. There are other dorama plot staples, but I think the above is a reasonably summary which any fan could identify. Again, I can only speculate as to why there should be such a high level of repetition: the imposed conservatism of an entertainment agenda frequently dictated by commercial sponsors and major talent agencies; a limited pool of successful TV writers who come from similar backgrounds; or, maybe, simple, unintellectual tastes on the part of the audience – any and all of these could play a role.

Whatever the reason, the end result is that there are certain, set, scenes which occur regularly in dorama, and so must be included. For example, the cathartic final confrontation: here, the individual and the group face each other, confess their mistakes, and draw closer together through an outpouring of emotion. This reaffirmation of social bonds, presented in a highly sentimentalised fashion, provides the audience with a major emotional ‘hit’ from their viewing, and is so much a staple of the form that it has to take place, and does so again, and again, in programme after programme. Again, I can only speculate as to why this is so popular – possibly because such open displays of emotion are extremely unusual in public in Japanese society, and showing them in fictional form reassures people that their friends, families and work colleagues do, indeed, care, even if they don’t show it that often. It also provides reassurance that no matter what the crisis, the supportive network of intra-group ties can overcome it, allowing viewers to feel hopeful that their own networks will support them in their real lives.

Returning to Koishite Akuma and its differences from Twilight, a further adaptation and one of the most striking, I think, is in the identity of the heroine: from someone of the same apparent age as the vampire to an older woman. In order to understand why this is necessary and, indeed, imperative in Koishite Akuma, we need to consider the stereotyped images of and attitudes to women prevalent in Japan. Over the last twenty years – or even longer –Japanese opinion has agonised over ‘acceptable’ ideas of womanhood, women’s roles in society, and ideas of ‘appropriate’ teenaged, and older behaviour. In this it’s no different from many modernising, or post-modernising states, and many academic authors have written about it. Notwithstanding the undoubted eroticisation and fetishisation of the image of the high-school girl in some areas of Japanese popular culture, and the complicated realities of teenage sexuality and experience, television dorama tends to present teenaged female characters as two distinct character types: first, there is the ‘good’ girl – studious, quiet, possibly interested in a boyfriend, but entirely innocent and able to do no more than hold hands, if she’s particularly daring. Second, there’s the ‘bad’ girl – noisy, interested only in clothes, make-up, having a good time, and probably sexually active and promiscuous.

Example of both this character type are present in Koishite Akuma: there's the serious Kaori (Sakuraba Nanami 桜庭ななみ) and the lively Tomomi (Okamoto Rei 岡本玲). But neither would do as a heroine: the ‘bad’ girl because she’s a bad girl, and the ‘good’ girl because it’s inconceivable that she could ever let go enough to engage in the semi-sexual activity that being bitten by a vampire involves. Hamstrung by these conventions, the writers of Koishite Akuma had no choice, therefore, but to make the female lead an older woman, which provides greater leeway in acceptable behaviour. Makoto is presented as being ‘good’: she lives alone, socialises little – because she’s so committed to her work and the children in her care – and, despite going out with the vice-principal, has not even kissed him or held his hand. Nevertheless, because she’s in her twenties, it would not be problematic, or unusual for her to do so, and so the writers can build up the tension with suggestions that she may surrender herself to Luka, in a way that would be impossible with a girl of his own, apparent, age. Of course, her actually doing so would be a step too far, and so inevitably viewers know that the relationship must remain unconsummated, and that the dénouement will involve an element of tragedy, as indeed it does – Romeo and Juliet again, but with a semi-sad ending. This plays sentimentally on the heartstrings of the Japanese viewer, allowing them to be moved by the characters’ plight, while also reassuring them that the correct social norms have been upheld.

Thus, the bloodsuckers of the world may be united in their popularity, but also remain very much a part of their own cultural milieu.

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